Sikh group reaches out to Instagram user who made insensitive post

Instagram user Sheena Phua with Mr Sarabjeet Singh, president of the Young Sikh Association, during her visit to the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road yesterday. She was invited to a gurdwara so she could learn more about Sikh traditions.
Instagram user Sheena Phua with Mr Sarabjeet Singh, president of the Young Sikh Association, during her visit to the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road yesterday. She was invited to a gurdwara so she could learn more about Sikh traditions.PHOTO: YOUNG SIKH ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE/ FACEBOOK

When a social media influencer's post calling two men wearing turbans "huge obstructions" to her view at the Singapore Grand Prix went viral, some among the Sikh community felt uncomfortable.

But increasingly heated online criticism of Ms Sheena Phua, an Instagram beauty and travel content influencer with over 76,000 followers, led a group of young Sikhs to make an unconventional response: They invited her to a gurdwara so she could learn more about their traditions.

Mr Sarabjeet Singh, 34, president of the Young Sikh Association (YSA), told The Straits Times the gesture took some thinking. "Some responses to Sheena's original post felt like a case of cyber bullying. (Although) there were some among us who were also a little uncomfortable with her initial post, we recognised it as an opportunity for us to reach out and engage," he said.

"We still feel that we did not want an apology. Would an apology alone have done anything to improve awareness and understanding?"

Ms Phua, 29, has apologised for the controversial remarks she made on Instagram two Saturdays ago. She had posted a photo of two men wearing white turbans standing in front of her at the Singapore Grand Prix, and captioned it: "Dang! Two huge obstructions decided to pop out of nowhere."

She later clarified the word "obstructions" was intended to refer only to the height of the two men who were both taller than her, and so had been taken out of context.

She told ST: "I did some reflection and agreed with (some) people that although the video was not outrightly racist, it was insensitive and had caused a lot of distress to the Sikh community... I decided to take up the YSA's offer to learn more."

The YSA was formed in 2003 by a group of young Sikh Singaporeans to empower young Sikhs and enhance understanding among people of different ethnic groups.

Last Saturday, a week after her divisive post, Ms Phua took up YSA's invitation to a four-hour visit to the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road, which she said "showed how peaceful the Sikh religion is".

 
 

Ms Phua was given an introduction to the Sikh religion and culture, and had questions like how Sikhs greet each other answered.

She also participated in sewa, or an act of service, by trying her hand at making chapati in the community kitchen. She was also shown the Guru Granth Sahib, the principal scripture of Sikhism.

Ms Phua told ST she has a close friend who is Sikh but she has never discussed religion and culture with her, saying: "I never really truly delved deeper into understanding the religious practices (of others). For many youth, the issues we discuss revolve around mundane issues like fashion, gossip and travel."

She hopes she will get more opportunities to interact with minority groups because "they have definitely contributed to (Singapore's) growth as a society".

Mr Sarabjeet, a civil servant, said he was glad Ms Phua took up YSA's offer, hoping that "all of us have walked away as better people". He said: "She demonstrated humility, kindness, curiosity and sincerity, and that is more important to us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2019, with the headline 'Sikh group reaches out to Instagram user who made insensitive post'. Print Edition | Subscribe